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Author Interview: Laina Villeneuve Chats about Birds of a Feather

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Get ready to learn more about the book Birds of a Feather in this discussion with sapphic author Laina Villeneuve.

Join us for an exclusive peek behind the scenes as we quiz Laina Villeneuve about Birds of a Feather, writing, reading, and more.

This book is part of the Neurodivergent Main Character category in the 2024 IHS Reading Challenge.

Why did you write Birds of a Feather?

I wrote this book because I have been battling the peacocks ever since we moved to the neighborhood. I promised my wife when we bought the house that I would get rid of the peacocks. I Googled “How to get rid of peacocks.” They suggested soaking fruit in alcohol, waiting until the birds were waisted and then bagging and relocating them. I never did it. Never even tried. After years and years of complaining about the birds and collecting stories, I thought I could at least get a story out of them.

Once I started writing, and it became clear that the character who lives in the peacock-infested neighborhood was on the spectrum, it felt important to tell her story. Adrienne’s story came to me in the first person. She wanted to share how she thinks and processes, and Casey was the perfect character to see and appreciate her exactly as she is.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

Adrienne is my favorite, but I’m only typing that if you promise that Casey will never read this. I love Adrienne because she is unapologetically who she is despite knowing that she is different from neurotypical people. She knows her self worth. In that way, she is very different from me. I worry incessantly about how people perceive me. Adrienne never worries about whether someone likes her. I wish I were more like her in that way. We do share some characteristics, though she is a little more like my son than she is like me. My son was diagnosed as autistic and ADHD in the fifth grade.

While I’ve never been diagnosed, learning about how my son processes the world around him and manages his auditory sensitivities has made me realize that we are very much alike. The chewing/swallowing noises that are challenging for Adrienne are challenging for me, too. Sniffing is my son’s sensitivity. Going back to question one, it was important for me to share how hard some people work to manage all the input of everyday life.

What was the biggest challenge writing this book?

The biggest challenge writing this book was finding things to love about the peacocks. The original “what if” that sparked the book was “what if someone who loathed peacocks fell for someone who loved them?” This stems from the binary in our neighborhood. Nobody is neutral. You either love or loathe the birds. I had to reach out to folks who love them and ask why Casey would be so taken with them.

I take that back. The biggest challenge was actually the field trip I took to get a feel for where Adrienne lives. My aunt and I drove out to look at two libraries and scope out the neighborhoods to see where Adrienne might rent. Like Adrienne, I hate driving to the city. I hate navigating streets with a lot of traffic. It was so traumatizing that when my friend flaked on taking me to Canter’s Deli, even though I knew I should go back to get a true feel for it, I just relied on Google for that scene because I could not work up the energy to drive back to the city.

What part of Birds of a Feather was the most fun to write?

The most fun part of the book to write was finding homes for many of the peacock stories we have. Writing is so much fun when words just fly onto the page, and when I’m taking a story from our experiences and massaging it into a story, I can barely keep up. I had so much fun when Casey got to use the experience I had with a neighbor who yelled at me for spraying peacocks out of one of our trees. She told me she would spray my children with a hose if they ever went in her yard. It was so satisfying to turn something unpleasant into a fun scene. I also love having characters from other books pop in to help with a new story, and Remi was so wonderful in her support of Adrienne.

What’s your favorite writing snack or drink?

I often write on weekends in the morning before the kids are up. Breakfast is two pieces of toast. One whole peanut butter. The other gets butter and then one side I do jam, usually strawberry but right now home-made apple butter that is SO good. The other side gets Nutella. I have orange juice while I’m eating my toast, but then I have a cup of Trader Joe’s chai tea latte mix.

I’m going to share with you the recipe for apple butter because I got it in college, and when I Googled for recipes, none were like the one that I have. I wish I could just scan it for you so you could see the handwriting of whomever gave it to me. It’s a real recipe, you see, the kind you collect.

6lbs cooking apples cored and quartered (Don’t Peel!) = 18 cups
6 cups apple cider or juice (I’ve always used cider)
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground Allspice

In an 8 or 10 quart Kettle, combine apples and juice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 30 min. stirring occasionally. Press through a food mill or pulp (or mash with a potato masher –that’s what I do) until smooth and liquidy.

Return to Kettle. Stir in rest of ingredients. Bring to a boil again. Reduce heat and simmer (they say uncovered but watch out for spatters!) about 2 hours or till very thick–stirring often.
Makes about 8 1/2 pts.

To can– spoon hot apple butter into hot, sterilized pint jars leaving a 3/4 inch headspace. Adjust lids. Clean process in boiling water for 5 minutes.

Do you have any odd writing quirks?

My writing quirk is how difficult it is for me to sit still. Even on a very productive writing day, it’s very difficult to sit in my chair for an extended period of time. I’ll type a few words and then check to see if that hair on my chin is long enough to pull. Write some, jump up for a glass of water. Write. Move the snoring dog. Write. Check to see if the hair is any longer. Write. Open the curtains for better light. Write. Pee. Write. Change jacket or slippers for better temperature control. Write. Heat up the hot thing I like to put behind my back. Write. By this time, I might have enough momentum to stay in my seat longer, but I can’t tell you the number of writing days that take me back to when I was on drill team in high school leading the “Stand Up! Sit Down! Fight! Fight! Fight!” cheer.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing, and by whom?

Blayne Cooper gave me the best piece of advice about writing. I have struggled a lot to quiet the voices of doubt about my competency as a writer. She read and gave me wonderful feedback on my second book and read a few stories as a beta reader. When I started to spiral into doubt about being able to finish a story, she would remind me that everyone has different interests. “Different strokes for different folks,” she said, reminding me that my stories DO resonate with some readers. She told me that I was never going to write a book that would make everyone happy, that it’s impossible! So when my confidence wanes, I will remember her saying to think about the people who have enjoyed my other books and write for them. She also helps me remember that how the book is received isn’t even the most important thing. She will ask if I am having a good time with what I’m writing. She’ll ask if I feel good about how things are coming together. That has helped me to focus less on what happens with the story after it’s published and more on how I feel about it.

With each book, I feel like I’m becoming a stronger writer. I remember how much I enjoy the process. I love brainstorming with my friends at the QueerConnect Story Hour. I love talking to my cousins and content experts to get ideas for what happens next. I love it when my characters surprise me! I think about how much fun it will be to work on another cover with my friend from my cowgirl days and do a deep dive with my editor Cath Walker. I don’t get to do that unless I keep my butt in the chair getting words pinned down. Blayne’s encouragement really helps me do that.

Do you feel bad putting your characters through the wringer?

I am SO not good at putting my characters through the wringer! I’ll read other folks’ books and think, oh, wow. They are really making a good challenge for their character! Too bad I can’t do that! The hardest thing I have ever done was in Return to Paradise when I took Bo away from Madison before she got to tell him how much she loved him. She thought she had such weak roots with her mom leaving her and her father being peripheral to her life. I was happy that Bo and Ruth were there to give her stability. I cried real tears writing Madison’s trip to the hospital when she learns he has died, and every time I’ve revisited that scene I cry again. It was necessary for Madison’s growth as a character, but it ripped my heart out to write it. So maybe I’m actually answering the question about having cried writing an emotional scene. That book brought in a lot of my experience with my cousins who lived up near the Northern California town the book takes place in. They lost their dad when they were in their teens/early twenties. I happened to be visiting the day that he had a massive heart attack, so writing Madison’s loss brought back the visceral pain I experienced with them.

What books have you read more than once in your life?

While my wife will reread books frequently, I rarely do. There’s just not enough time with so many new books to read! That said, I have read Georgia Beers’ Starting from Scratch at least three times. I picked this question because of the “what is it about the book that keeps me coming back” part. I go back to that story because Avery’s voice is so strong. The first time I read the book, it felt like making a new friend, one that I loved enough that I wanted to hang out with her again. We could drink wine together or hike or stress bake! We would have so much fun baking together! We could talk pups and parenting and coping with grief. We have so much in common! It’s not easy to make friends in real life (although I’m getting better at I these days!) so I think that when I was going back to this story for rereads, it was because I wanted a friend like Avery.

Do you only read books in one genre or do you genre hop?

I absolutely genre hop. I never read the same kind of book in a row. I enjoy lesbian romance, but I can’t live only in that world. I read several other types of books before I get back to romance. I try to read books that teach me about different cultures, so I look for Black voices (did you read The Vanishing Half?) or Muslim (A Place for Us and Radiant Fugitives both really moved me) or Asian (Our Missing Hearts). I’m also really enjoying Abraham Verghese’s books.

I try to keep up with current general fiction because I love exploring the difficult things fiction writers throw at their characters. General fiction helps me understand how people grapple with difficult things. I just finished The Nightingale. Any time Ann Patchett writes something new, I’m there. Same with Elizabeth Strout. I’ll read light stuff, too. I really enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures. Every semester my Children’s Literature students assign young adult books published in the last ten years for me. Raising teens, I find it’s a great way to explore what challenges them. Sometimes my daughter and I read the same book and discuss the story.

I also love audio books. I do a lot of escapist reading on audio. That’s where I delve into urban fantasy like the Mercy Thomsen books. I love the worlds Ilona Andrews builds and have recently been captivated by the Joe Pickett series by CJ Box.

Meet Laina Villeneuve

Laina Villeneuve met her wife, who lived in Tennessee at the time, at a dinner party. One handshake and she knew she was a goner. Twenty years later, they live in Southern California with their three children and two poodle mixes. A full-time teacher, she tries to write at least 1,500 words a week.

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